Thursday, Sep 29th
Monday, Oct 3rd

Is James Conner A Must-Play?

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Quote from Cleveland Meteorologist Jeff Tanchak:

“Unless something significantly changes (which I doubt), we are looking at a HIGH impact weather event Sunday and Sunday night. The latest data I’m seeing [Friday] morning is calling for widespread 5+ inches of rain and locally 7+ inches. The heavy rain will start late Sunday night. So that means all day Sunday and Sunday night we are looking at continuous heavy rain. Winds will be gusting up to 40 MPH at times. I have not seen a worse weather forecast for a Browns game in almost 16 years I have been here and that includes snow events. I have no idea how they will be able to play football or how people will be able to sit in that stadium and watch a game.”

That pretty well obliterates the breakdown below. I’m taking Conner out of consideration in cash and bumping him down in tourneys, as the biggest value he was adding was as a pass catcher. The Browns have a strong run defense, so a run-heavy game script actually plays away from what we want here.

I also dig into my thoughts on Antonio Brown and Carlos Hyde on the Week 1 #OWSChatPod; I start talking about the weather at the 1:11:29 mark.

Below is the original James Conner writeup, in case weather unexpectedly clears, or in case you want to know more about a player who may continue to be relevant down the road.

One of the most difficult challenges in DFS is deciding when to play the chalk and when to avoid it. While some people make the mistake of jumping into “strategy first” in their thought process, the first thing we should always do in these ultra-chalk situations is assess the talent, matchup, opportunity, and price of the player — independent of any ownership thoughts. And so, that is where we will begin with James Conner, who will be filling in for Le’Veon Bell this week.

Talent:

While Conner struggled as a rookie last year, he shed weight this offseason (similar to what Bell himself did a few years back), and during preseason he graded out with a top-five Run grade from Pro Football Focus. Of course, you’ll see that stat touted this week, which makes it worth noting that Senorise Perry graded out as the number four back; i.e., sample sizes are small in preseason (roughly one game’s worth of action), and these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.

Moving away from metrics and into actual film study: Conner showed extremely good vision in preseason, with decent burst and moderate tackle-breaking ability (his yards after contact per attempt look fantastic, but again: small sample sizes; and he was the beneficiary of some egregious, preseason-style missed tackles). He is not Le’Veon Bell, but he has picked up a similar running style, and while he is not quite able to wait…wait…wait…burst-through-the-hole in the same way as Bell, he can definitely do it better than most. “Talent” should currently be viewed as an above-average asset for Conner, and there is a chance that extended playing time would prove to us that his talent should be graded even higher than that. Perhaps most importantly of all, his talent is a good fit in this particular offense.

Matchup:

The matchup sucks. As explored in the original breakdown, Gregg Williams idiotically schemes to stop the run while allowing wide receivers to eat on underneath passes. Last year, the Browns ranked fourth in DVOA against the run and second in yards allowed per rush attempt. In two matchups last year against the Browns, Steelers backs totaled 145 rushing yards on 36 carries (4.03 YPC) — though that all has to be taken with a grain of salt, as Bell played limited time in Week 1, and Steelers starters did not play in the second matchup between these teams.

Still, we know what Williams will be scheming to do. We should not go into this game expecting 100 yards on the ground from Conner. I’m pegging 18 to 20 carries and 70 to 85 yards as the likeliest range for Conner in this spot.

Opportunity:

Of course, rushing opportunity is not the totality of what makes Bell so valuable; rather, it’s his role in the pass game.

In the preseason, Conner chip-blocked and then released as an outlet on nearly all passing plays for the Steelers, and he was schemed the ball on screens a couple times. Even more importantly, Conner lined up at wide receiver on a surprisingly regular basis — which tells us that he can be expected to step right into that portion of Bell’s role. This is huge news for us in DFS, as it should lock Conner into at least five targets, after Bell averaged 6.63 targets per game last year. Cleveland ranked in the bottom 12 in the league last year in catches allowed to running backs, and they ranked in the bottom eight in receiving yards to backs. Conner’s route-running still requires a lot of work (he’s especially sloppy when lined up at wide receiver, with bends to his routes instead of breaks), but he has shown good hands and good instincts in the open field. Especially on DraftKings and FantasyDraft, this pass game involvement does a ton to raise his floor.

Price:

Duh.

Putting it all together:

On FanDuel, Conner is only $5k…but with pricing always softer on FanDuel, I’m not considering him a must-play, as there is no guarantee he scores, and a line of 75 rushing yards, four catches for 30 yards, and no touchdowns (which is right around Conner’s floor) is by no means a “must have.” He’s a strong cash game play, but with the Browns doing a good job keeping running backs out of the end zone, his chances of “breaking your roster if you fade him” are lower than the percentage at which he is likely to be owned. With this line quickly moving in favor of the Browns, Carlos Hyde is a better FanDuel play for me, at only $900 more. To further clarify this stance: I like Conner plenty on FanDuel and am absolutely fine with the idea of playing him; but to me, he’s not a “must have” on there, as the paths to a “so-so” game are more plentiful than most will pretend.

On DraftKings and FantasyDraft, with PPR scoring, Conner will be difficult to justify leaving off cash game rosters. That same line laid out above (75 rushing yards, four catches for 30 yards) would add two additional points…on a site with tighter pricing. That totals 14.5 points as an expected floor, which is tough to beat at such a low price, especially when there are several high-priced guys we would love to fit (hopefully, you can check your game notes to know exactly who those high-priced guys are for you!). If Conner pops off for a long run, grabs a couple extra catches, or pushes one into the end zone, all the better; but it just doesn’t make sense to ignore this floor in cash.

Tourneys are a different story for me. If we played this slate a hundred times, I believe Carlos Hyde (see the full writeup of this game) would outscore Conner around half the time. Conner is in a difficult matchup as a road favorite on a team whose Vegas odds are moving in the wrong direction. Hyde is in a soft matchup as a home underdog on a team whose odds are moving in the right direction. Conner will almost certainly be over 40% owned, while Hyde will likely be under 10% owned (currently, our projections have him at 3.37% on DK). In the “small sample size” of one weekend, either guy could come out on top; but with all the attention flowing toward Conner, the math should point us toward Hyde in tourneys.

Again, to clarify: Conner has a very high floor, and with his talent and workload, his ceiling is definitely visible. But he is not a “better play than Hyde” to the extent that ownership will likely indicate (not even close). I’m pegging these guys at 50/50…but even if you stretched it to 70/30 in Conner’s favor, the math would still point us toward Hyde in tourneys. This means that if we are looking to make the types of decisions that position us for big winnings throughout the season, we should strongly consider a Conner fade (or at least strongly consider being underweight on him) in tourneys this weekend. (Note: I expect Conner’s projected ownership to continue rising throughout the weekend as the entire industry talks him up; if I am incorrect on this and he sticks at under 20% ownership, it becomes a lot easier to justify playing him in tourneys if you prefer him over Hyde.)

To sum it all up: He’s a very strong play, and there is literally no reason to expect a “bad” game. But he is not nearly as strong of a play as ownership will likely indicate, and with a clear pivot at hand, game theory would instruct us to go overweight on Hyde and underweight on Conner — as difficult as that may be. I currently plan to leave Conner off my main tourney roster, and to be underweight on him in large-field stuff. If I have a losing weekend because of it, I won’t be bothered by it, as I’ll know I made what is a +EV play over time.

Three final items:

1) Yes, it’s totally fine to play Hyde and Conner on a roster together; especially as Conner’s ceiling will rise if the Browns take a lead, and Hyde’s floor will rise in that scenario as well.

2) With all the uncertainty surrounding Burkhead, he’s a notch below these guys for me right now; and with game flow concerns for Barber, he’s fourth on the list for me. But in large-field tourneys, all four guys remain in play — depending on your personal taste and assessment of the research and information in hand.

3) This is the main reason I made this writeup for subscribers only: Antonio Brown is going to eat. His usage has consistently spiked with Le’Veon Bell missing, and even before all this Bell drama, I have included A.B. on every serious “Core Roster” I have played around with so far. There is a 0% chance A.B. is missing from my Core Roster this week — and with everyone else focused on Kamara and Keenan Allen, we may get lower ownership on A.B. than he would typically draw in this spot.

Let’s get it!!!

#EveryEdgeCounts